The essays in Brian Dillon’s Objects in This Mirror restlessly consider aphorisms, art vandalism, slapstic comedy, the act of erasure, the art of the essay, the history of “ruin-lust,” and the careers of a handful of contemporary artists—pieces on such a variety of topics that it’s “easier,” Dillon notes in the book’s introduction, “to name some of the subjects I’ve written about that didn’t make it into this book than to try to imagine a rationale” for what did. The generalist risks the terms “dilettante, hack, dabbler,” as Dillon acknowledges. “But there is also a tradition—let us call it essayistic, or let us simply call it curious—according to which one ought to be interested not exactly in everything . . . but in a sufficiently diverse range of things that nobody is quite sure of what it is you ‘do’ as a writer.” To call someone a hack or a dabbler, of course, is to suggest an element of faking it. In “F for Fake,” the essay included here, Dillon asks “what manner of truth” such accusations of charlatanry take for granted (and, playfully but pointedly, prefaces his arguments with an invented quotation). Dillon is the UK editor at Cabinet, and has written five books, including The Hypochondriacs: Nine Tormented Lives, and a novela, Sanctuary. Objects in This Mirror was released earlier this year.
I count no man a Philosopher who hath not, be it before the court of his Conscience or at the assizes of his Intellect, accused himself of a scurrilous Invention, and stood condemned by his own Judgement a brazen Charlatan.
—Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy.
Trust Me, I’m a Doctor…
In his book Charlatan: The Fraudulent Life of John Brinkley, Pope Brock tells the grotesque and exemplary tale of one of the most audacious and fortunate fraudsters of the last century. In 1917, Brinkley, a physician of dubious credentials and few scruples, grafted a portion of goat’s testicle onto the genitals of one Bill Stittsworth, a Kansas farmer lately troubled with impotence. Within a decade, Brinkley had built a glandular empire on the back of this clinically useless and frequently lethal operation, becoming in the process the most famous doctor in the United States. He died in 1942, his vast fortuneuntouched by the several scandals that had attended his rejuvenating procedure.
Like many charlatans, Brinkley found himself shadowed throughout his career by a tireless skeptic whose single-minded aim was to expose his fakery. Morris Fishbein, of the American Medical Association, wrote, lectured, and litigated against the countless “Cheap Jacks,” shams and quacks, who blithely parted the ailing rube from his dollar. (This in a country where regulation of the medical profession was still looked on with democratic suspicion.) Fishbein became almost as famous as the wealthy targets of his truth telling; he performed the exposure of the medical mountebank as though it were in itself a spectacle, even a kind of con. Brinkley was his ultimate catch. Fishbein, in other words, came to resemble the surgical grafter himself: He learned the methods of public exposure from the master of medical PR.
The story of Brinkley and Fishbein is unexpectedly instructive for the history of art and charlatanry in the twentieth century. It was also in 1917, one might recall, that Marcel Duchamp attempted to introduce some foreign matter, in the shape of his Fountain, into the precincts of the modern museum. In this instance, the graft did not at first take: the Society of Independent Artists in New York rejected the rejuvenating tissue. But a curious relay was thus set up between the artist-ascharlatan—who attempts, as it were, to put one over on the institution—and the artist-as-skeptic: the unmasker of institutional art as flagrant deception. Duchamp, of course, was both: He reminds us that charlatans and those who seek to expose them are secretly working in consort.
Crack, Baby, Crack, Show Me You’re Real
What exactly do we mean when we call an artist or writer a charlatan? An artist friend of mine, for example, worries about Andy Warhol: “I can never decide if he’s the greatest artist of the twentieth century, or a complete charlatan.” (Why are charlatans always “complete”? Are there partial charlatans?) Another friend, whose cultural forays are not unadventurous, complains: “I can’t get on with Joseph Beuys: I think he was a charlatan. ”It’s framed as a judgment of taste, but it is really no such thing: rather, the statement damns without appeal, allowing no counterargument once the specter of charlatanry has been summoned. (Perhaps that is its point: to put an end to the conversation.) Most pressingly, however, it raises the question of truth where we might not have thought it pertained.
But what manner of truth is in question? Assuredly, an artistic or literary charlatan is not merely a fraud, a forger, or an impostor. Such quasi-criminal categories—we might add the plagiarist to the list—have their own clear-cut logic: The perpetrator either is or is not what he or she purports to be. The memoirist James Frey revealed in 2006 to have fabricated crucial portions of his book A Million Little Pieces; the art forger John Myatt whose approximations of the work of Picasso, Chagall, Giacometti, and Van Gogh were sold for substantial sums by Sotheby’s and Christie’s in the early 1990s; the British TV psychiatrist Raj Persaud who in June of this year admitted cannibalizing the writings of other scholars for his books and articles—none of these are properly charlatans. The accusation points to something far more fundamental than a simple waywardness with the facts.
What it names, precisely, is a deficit of sincerity: This is what the critic Hilton Kramer was referring to in 1966 when he spoke of Duchamp’s “resplendent triviality.” The charlatan does not set out to peddle mistruths about the world, but rather does not really mean or does not really believe in the work that he or she makes. This suggests a rather Romantic notion, a conception of artistic being as truth-to-self, that has survived into an era otherwise attuned to auto-invention and to celebration of the type of the trickster in popular culture and the avant-garde alike. In a sense, it’s an objection to style, to surface, to those artists who do things for effect. (As if there were some higher value in art than its effects.) But the charlatan-wrangler objects just as regularly to apparent depth: For him, no profundity is deep enough to be safe from the shallows of insufficient sincerity. In fact, self-evident profundity would be almost a definition of obvious charlatanry: Real depth is harder-won.
We Mean It, Man!
The crucible in which this notion of sincerity gets sublimed into purest dogma is popular music in the late twentieth century. This might seem surprising, given the extent to which pop depends on the production of personae, the flame-into-being of a new self, pristine, and self-evidently plastic. More exactly, it’s the split between pop and rock effected in the late 1960s that causes accusations of charlatanry to fly. Not that the latter merely conceives of the former as fake: instead, rock itself becomes a testing ground for the artist’s sincerity. What is judged is his willingness to pay his dues, the extent to which his art emerges from an authentic milieu, the force of his self-belief, and the embeddedness of his message in the principle of reality. To be found wanting in these categories means being branded “a hype”: a judgment that is somehow even worse than being dismissed as a frankly commercial pop phenomenon. (Most rock criticism still has not escaped this way of thinking.)
The ghost that frets the skeptic in this scene is that of Bob Dylan, circa 1965. Dylan’s electric turn may have been cast by those who objected to it as a betrayal of his oeuvre to date, a move away from the authenticity of folk, toward the commercial sound and stance of contemporary pop. But what really troubled his detractors—and unconsciously worried even those who embraced the newly electrified Dylan—was surely the suspicion that he had revealed the old “Bob Dylan” as an act in itself. He seemed not to believe in himself, indeed to undo the idea of self-belief that so much of the culture of the time depended upon. That this was also the moment at which Dylan most resembled Warhol, physically and artistically, is a clue to just how fundamentally he had unsettled the binary logic of rock sincerity—all that then remained was for David Bowie to fuse the two personae into one and admit outright to being a self-created sham.
My Need Is Such, I Pretend Too Much
In the realms of art and literature, it is either insouciance or (oddly) excessive labor that will earn the accusation of charlatanry. On the one hand—as with Duchamp’s readymades, Tracey Emin’s My Bed (1998) or Martin Creed’s Work No. 227: The lights going on and off (2000)—the artist-charlatan is popularly accused of having done very little, almost nothing, to constitute the work in the first place, or of freighting a flimsy artifact with a weight of meaning it cannot bear. On the other hand, the charlatan works too hard, produces an elaborate work—prodigious in terms of its size or scope, the time and effort expended in its making—that yields scarcely any significance. (Finnegans Wake remains the exemplary instance.) Sometimes, as in the case of Gertrude Stein’s experimental texts, both circumstances obtain: her novel-of-sorts, The Making of Americans, is both dauntingly long and apparently written with no care for sense.
In philosophy, the charlatan may also be thought to have formulated an overly complex system, or to have elaborated a needlessly obscure vocabulary that hides an essential paucity at the level of the concept. This was certainly one of the charges leveled at Jacques Derrida by the many academics who objected to his being awarded an honorary degree at Cambridge in 1992. But the more fundamental objection was that Derrida had undermined the very notion of philosophical truth. That he had done no such thing was really beside the point: What mattered was that his thoroughgoing philosophical skepticism was in itself perceived as a form of charlatanry. The unmasker, so his opponents claimed, was in reality masked—he possessed, so the philosophical journalist A. C. Grayling put it recently, “a dishonest mind.”
The phrase is almost too telling. It suggests that Grayling—and those who point and shout “Charlatan!” in genera—values some occulted level of philosophical sincerity above truth itself. He imagines there are other thinkers who really mean it, and are therefore axiomatically better thinkers. This is a kind of willed ignorance of the extent to which philosophy has always relied on what Gilles Deleuze called “conceptual personae”: the idiot, the skeptic, the dandy, the melancholic, even the charlatan himself—quasi-fictional stand-ins for the philosopher. It is to assume, as Brian Eno put it in an article in Wire in 1992, “that there is such a thing as the ‘real’ people, and the ‘pretenders.’ And the other assumption is that there’s something wrong with pretending.”
Here Comes the Mirror Man
The accusation of charlatanry is in one sense meaningless; in another, essential to what it means to be an artist in the wake of Duchamp, Warhol, and Beuys. The traditional tabloid charge of putting one over on the public, having a laugh at their expense, remains as popular as ever. Of course, in contemporary art, the figure of the faker is in part just one persona among many that the artist may choose to deploy, a now-canonical role to be embraced rather than disavowed. Abject sincerity is equally a career choice of sorts. How to tell the difference between the two? Why exactly would one want to tell the difference between the two? The charlatan, in fact, embodies both: He is the artist who convinces and infuriates in equal measure, who makes a spectacle of his sincerity, turns authenticity into pure performance.
The ultimate trickster-theorist of the modernist era was not an artist but an entertainer. Erik Weisz, known to the world as Harry Houdini, first amazed by his feats of escapology, then devoted the latter years of his career to the exposure of the fakery at work in contemporary Spiritualism. In the 1920s, the magician was even suborned to a committee of the Scientific American that was dedicated to exposing the Spiritualist sham. His professional nemesis, strangely, was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who had perfected in the character of Sherlock Holmes the type of the perfect skeptic, but later (following the death of his son in the First World War) succumbed to the consoling hope of communing with the dead. As the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips wrote in Houdini’s Box: The Art of Escape, “the masked are always great unmaskers.” The skeptic and the charlatan formed the perfect partnership, because they both knew that “the honest, if they are to pursue the truth, must be sufficiently competent at dishonesty.”
From Objects in This Mirror, published by Sternberg Press.